x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

The Birthday Party: a lavish Greek tragedy

Paperback of the Week Panos Karnezis explores the hollowness of wealth.

The Birthday Party by Panos Karnezis.
The Birthday Party by Panos Karnezis.

The Birthday Party
Panos Karnezis
Vintage
Dh57
It is the summer of 1975 on a private island in the Mediterranean and final preparations are underway for a lavish party. There will be caviar and champagne, followed by an elaborate dinner and a three-tiered cake ordered from Vienna. The 21-piece orchestra of Maxim's, the Parisian restaurant, has been booked at giddying expense, and the guest list draws from all over the world.

The host is Marco Timoleon, a Greek shipping magnate who bears more than a passing resemblance to Aristotle Onassis. A little like one of his ancestors' thunderous deities, he possesses an ability to be in his Paris, London and New York offices all at once. His private island is planted with every kind of tree mentioned in the Bible, and he owns a luxury yacht and a fleet of seven black Cadillacs, each parked in a different foreign location with its engine running and its chauffeur at the ready. He also has a plane, the remaining one of a pair whose twin was wrecked when his only son, Daniel, crashed it and was killed during a storm.

A year on from that dark day, 72-year-old Marco is still trying to control those around him, which is why he is throwing his daughter, Sofia, a 25th birthday party. The real reason for the festivities is not to celebrate her quarter-century, but to lure her to the island and persuade her to have an abortion.

Marco knows about her pregnancy thanks to his private detectives, who also revealed the identity of the baby's father - Marco's official biographer, Ian Forster, or "the Englishman" as Marco calls him. Intent on grooming Sofia to take over the business now that Daniel is dead, Marco vehemently disapproves and is determined to have his way, even enlisting the support of his estranged second wife. Secretly converting one of his villa's many guest rooms into an operating theatre, he has summoned his private doctor and confidante to perform the operation and planted a nurse and an anaesthetist among the revellers.

While the party gets underway and Marco attempts to cajole Sofia into agreeing to a termination, offering jewellery and secretly trying to bribe Ian, the narrative toggles back and forth to chart the protagonist's rise from a penniless teacher's son to one of the richest men in the world. As his biographer has learnt, it is hard to fillet fact from fiction where Marco's self-mythologised past is concerned.

It takes a skilled author to create a really good, multidimensional baddy, but Panos Karnezis pulls it off here in his third book. Sure, Marco is an alcoholic, philandering brute, yet he loves ancient philosophy and was generous before paranoia hemmed in his horizons.

Though some of his attributes will sound hackneyed - he loves his mamma, The Godfather is his favourite movie and he wears only black and white - other details seem to contain the seeds of a library of untold stories. For instance, Marco's father, a railway engineer, fell so hard for the classics that he became too busy reading to supervise his crew of workers, causing his stretch of the line to meander across Anatolia, leaving grand stations marooned. When he finally ran out of reading, he vanished into a deep melancholia.

Curiously, the one skimpily drawn character is the writer, Ian, though that does little to mar a seductive portrait of the hollowness of wealth, the loneliness of power and the ruinous temptations of celebrity. It's nothing we don't already know, of course, yet Karnezis lays out his lessons with such subtle poise that their wisdom gleams anew.